One of the principles of permaculture is ‘produce no waste’. Nature works through interlocking circles – what is produced by one part of the system is consumed by another, as when animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, while plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Homo industrialis, by contrast, is a master of linear design: extract -> produce -> consume -> excrete.
Where I live in Brussels, every Sunday we see the garbage truck chugging around the neighbourhood, carting off the huge piles of garden waste excreted from people’s super-tidy ‘civilised’ gardens. Lawn clippings, trees, branches, weeds. Ria always scratches her head with a disgusted look – all these people are removing valuable organic matter from their soil! Of course, they use various types of fertilizer to make up for that – much of it chemical, but even if it’s organic, it’s still consumed a load of resources to get from wherever it started off life as living organic matter to where they haul it out of the boot of their car, rip open the plastic bag and shovel it onto their flowerbeds. These days, I prefer to leave my lawn unmowed so the bees can enjoy the flowers, and all grass clippings (including those of the neighbour) go onto the vegetable beds. The autumn leaves are all raked into the flowerbeds and around the roots of the shrubs in the hedge, and woody cuttings are piled at the bottom of the garden to provide housing for hedgehogs or anything else that fancies a new home.
After Taco’s chain-saw blitz on the tree population – removing trees that were either unproductive and taking resources from productive trees (the willows in the orchard), in the wrong place, or just plain not wanted (the juniper bush at the top of the kitchen garden and the laurel at the front of the house) – we had a dauntingly huge volume of what could only be called debris, scattered all about the place. Fortunately, we had foreseen this challenge, and invited willing friends to come and lend a hand to process this apparent waste into useful resources.
There are three components to trees, once they have been moved from the vertical to the horizontal plane (which is where you see just how much organic matter a tree really has to offer):
logs – from the trunk and thick branches. These can be left to dry and then used as firewood for heating and cooking
- branches and woody stems – these can be put to many creative uses. Long, straight willow shoots (which can be over 2m long) can be used to make pergolas for training vines, beans, etc. in the kitchen garden; shorter branches, if straight enough, can be used as the upright components in a windbreak/ barrier wall, while all the others can be used to fill it in; sticks and twigs make great kindling; long thin straight branches can be used to stake up garden plants…
- leaves and green stems, mixed with dried cut away brambels, are perfect for compost, rotting down in a matter of months into lovely humus that can be incorporated into the soil.
- slow-rotting matter – like evergreen conifers and laurel leaves, can be piled up in a corner, if you have the space, to serve as a lovely structured niche for all kinds of wildlife to increase the biodiversity on the land.
Why we don’t like laurel
When we cleared away the sawn-off laurels and hauled them down to their final resting place to slowly, slowly decompose, we were impressed by the total lack of humus where the shrubs had been. Laurel leaves break down so slowly that they give nothing back to the soil on which they stand. It would seem they are not native to these parts, which might explain why they seem so poorly integrated into the ecosystem.
The archaeology of rubbish
As we have cleared away the burgeoning growth on the land, these last months, we have uncovered an extraordinary quantity of trash littered about the place – spent pill packaging scattered all around the orchard, old iron hinges, handles, locks, bedsprings, etc. in the meadow, broken glass, coke cans, bricks. The old manure pit, where we had been fondly imagining we would find some nice compost, turned out to be completely full of the non-biodegradable detritus of years of farm living.
The analysis we had done of soil samples from the kitchen garden also showed us rather high levels of cadmium in the ground. This was probably because the previous inhabitants burned much of their rubbish and then deposited the ash in the garden, not realising that it contained heavy metals from the waste burned.
We realise that past generations have not been as mindful of their waste as we are learning to be – and this uncovering of the bad habits of the past is teaching us a lot about how to organise ourselves differently in the future as we prepare to inhabit and steward this place.